If you had asked me my thoughts on Banned Books Week two years ago, before the release of my debut novel, None of the Above, I would have admitted to secretly hoping that my book would be challenged. After all, it featured one of the truest hallmarks of a controversial title: characters that defied the gender binary.
During my release year I faced no overt pushback, possibly because I’m a physician, and can discuss the science behind my intersex character’s biological condition. And, as recent actions by the NCAA and the ACC suggest, society as a whole seems to be more open to discourse around gender diversity.
Then it happened. I was disinvited from a school visit in Tennessee with no warning. And I realized that being banned is not thrilling. It is not something to be celebrated. It’s more like the gut punch you’d feel if someone threw your child off a playground because they think they’d start a fight. More importantly, with books like mine, that hope to shine light on subjects that are associated with stigma and shame, it’s the readers who lose. A chance to save lives, down the drain.
As I tried to process the withdrawn invitation, I wondered. What kind of educator turns away the opportunity to educate? What kind of administrator can’t be bothered to introduce students to topics that will make them think critically across disciplines? What kind of person denies our youth any kind of literature that increases openness and tolerance?
Writing for children is possibly the most important thing that I do, and I say this as both a mother and as a surgeon who recently removed a 15-centimeter kidney tumor from a 61-year-old man. This is not to trivialize the act of treating cancer, but to emphasize the importance of saving lives through literature.
Books can cure in many ways—people contain multitudes—but in my own experience they have shaped my life threefold: by being a balm to loneliness, by inoculating me against my own latent prejudices, and by providing me a hopeful prognosis for the future.
I’ve been extraordinarily lucky to witness this healing process from the other side of the page, as well, through feedback I’ve gotten from readers. Comments like: “Your book gave me the courage to reach out to others with my condition" and "thank you for showing me that I am not alone."
In fact, a plurality of young adult writers I know have similar examples. Almost universally, it’s because they’ve dared to tackle difficult subjects: Police brutality. Coming out. Drug use. Issues of gender identity. Disability. Gun violence. Suicide.
Books—particularly the books that delve into the tough topics that today’s youth are exposed to every news cycle —save lives. Of course, it's these "difficult” books that are most often challenged by parents and school administrators. The American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom documents library challenges, and data consistently show that diverse books, books featuring people of color, religious minorities or characters that are LGBTQIA or disabled, are disproportionately banned.
The tragedy, of course, is that diverse youth are at the highest risk for suicide: Native American teens are twice as likely to take their lives as their peers; LGBTQIA teens are more than four times as likely to take their life.
If there is any greater proof that the pen is mightier than the sword, it’s the fact that there are areas of the country where people are more afraid of picture books about gay penguins than they are concerned about guns in schools.
Typically, challenges are offered by parents on grounds of content that is “unsuitable for age group.” Yet educational research suggests that shielding kids from tough topics denies them critical thinking skills, whereas students exposed to controversial issues leave school as better citizens, being more likely to vote, support democratic values, and do charitable work.
Therein is the most important attribute of books as medicine—their ability to foster compassion, promote empathy, and reconcile division. There is nothing like a book to allow you to walk in another person’s shoes. Take it from someone who is both a physician and a writer: Every banned book is a missed opportunity to treat.
I.W. Gregorio is a mother, practicing surgeon, and young adult author. Her debut novel, None of the Above (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray), was a finalist for the 2016 Lambda Literary Award, a Publishers Weekly Flying Start, and a 2015 ABC Children’s Group Best Book for Young Readers.